The Lowdown: How culture change led Flash to the top of NWSL

Dan Lauletta October 12, 2016 25
A wide array of reactions to Lynn Williams's 124th minute equalizer that sent the final to penalties. The Spirit player on the ground is Alyssa Kleiner. (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

A wide array of reactions to Lynn Williams’s 124th minute equalizer that sent the final to penalties. The Spirit player on the ground is Alyssa Kleiner. (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Following two seasons of dull soccer and two off seasons shuttling players to other NWSL cities, it was time for a change in Western New York. Though the club when into a rebuilding phase after 2014, a process expedited for them when Abby Wambach elected not to play the 2015 season, something else was afoot.

There is nary a trace of any player, current or past, speaking out against the crumbling culture of an organization that could once be counted on to be relevant when the most important parts of the season approached. A bit of deeper examination has uncovered texts and other messages sent from remaining players to ones just traded. The main message was always something to the effect of, “You’re lucky to be getting out of here.”

Things began to change on December 22, 2015. The days before Christmas are usually quiet for NWSL, but that was the day Aaran Lines, citing his expanding family and a desire to help grow the Flash’s other business entities, stepped down as head coach after seven seasons and three championships.

Lines, the son-in-law of owner Joe Sahlen, remained prominent in the organization and technical director Charlie Naimo made it less of an issue to see the draft come and go without a coach on board. As it did, Lines was wooing Paul Riley, but the recently sacked Thorns coach had decided to take 2016 off from the pro ranks.

To use Riley’s word, Lines was relentless. “He just kept coming and coming.” Riley finally agreed to venture north to visit the Flash facility and discuss the job in a little more detail. On February 19, Paul Riley was announced as the Western New York Flash’s second head coach.
***
As Riley scanned his new roster he saw only one name that he had coached extensively: Jessica McDonald. Familiarity does not always equal comfort, and in this relationship, things were not great.

“The first phone call I made was to Jess. We needed to have a chat. As soon as we had the chat it was about 30 seconds and we were on with it,” Riley said. “We had a great conversation about what are we going to do this year and how are we going to do it.”

After that, Riley attacked the young nucleus of the club. “Abby (Dahlkemper) was the next phone call I made. Abby is a yapper so she spent about an hour and a half on the phone with me talking about everything. Can we do this better Paul? Can we do that better? Then I talked to Sam Mewis and I just listened. Another hour. It was just a great opportunity to hear them out.”

{MORE: Three thoughts on the Flash’s 2016 NWSL Championship}

Riley tends to be more revealing than most and when he said, “It wasn’t a happy place the locker room last year,” it was one of the first times anyone has ventured to put that on the record. “What happens is when there’s only one guy in charge for all this amount of time, you probably don’t realize.”

That person is Lines and the new dynamic certainly could have been awkward. Here was Riley, taking over for Lines as head coach, having to ask his predecessor for the authority to make certain changes. Lines though, was receptive to nearly every request.

“There were a couple of times when he had to smack me on the back of the neck with a fork,” Riley deadpanned. “but most of it was pretty straight forward. When I came in I sat down with Aaran and I said I think we need to do this X, Y, and Z and he said ‘All right if you think it’s going to help we’ll do it.’”

Bus rides. Meals. Strength and conditioning sessions. With input from the players, Riley worked with management to upgrade as many parts of the Flash as possible.

“There was a laundry list of things that we felt would be important for the environment. Having lived it in Portland where we had access to everything I think I was able to maybe parlay some of the things we did in Portland and bring them to the club. I would say for (lack of) a better word modernize the club a little bit, just bring it up to speed.

“Ownership has been great with backing us up. It’s cost them a little bit more money in doing that, making sure the players are taken care of. That little extra mile makes a huge impact.”

No one could have known it at the time, but without having so much as run a single training session, Paul Riley had laid the groundwork for a championship.

Paul Riley greets his team to celebrate after watching the NWSL Championship from a radio booth due to a suspension (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Paul Riley greets his team to celebrate after watching the NWSL Championship from a radio booth due to a suspension (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

charting a course for the season

Once the phone calls and behind the scenes matters were dealt with, it came time to meet the players and get preseason started. In Portland, Riley took over a side that had won the NWSL Championship. Simply put there was no place go but down. In Western New York he was starting where things ended up in Portland—on the outside looking in. After mulling it over, he decided to strip away all expectations.

“Any time you get hired as a coach you look at the squad that you’ve got and you’ve got to make a decision. Is it all about results or is it all about development?” Riley said. “I took the thing on this occasion and said it’s all about development. What we’re going to do is forget the results, put them in the background and work on the fact that each player can do a little bit more each day to get better. That’s how we approached it.”

{LYNN WILLIAMS: USWNT call/MVP come on same day | Best XI too}

Riley and his assistant Scott Vallow decided not to set team goals. Playoffs and championships were never mentioned even, according to Riley, after beating the Thorns to secure their place in the final. Instead of using results as a carrot, Riley decided to play the underdog card. And he found it easy.

“You guys (the media) handed us the underdog card seven months ago so we just played to that the whole way through. I think it’s helped us.”

making it all work

The season began in Kansas City where the Flash watched FC Kansas City get honored for their second consecutive NWSL Championship. But they were a team in transition and put out an interesting formation with three center backs in a 3-5-2. Sound familiar? The Flash earned a fortuitous penalty which Jaelene Hinkle converted and got lucky again when they gave one up late and Heather O’Reilly hit the post in stoppage time.

{RELATED: Sabrina D’Angelo wins MVP award for her grandfather}

“I go back to two results,” Riley said. “One was opening day when we escaped with three points in Kansas.”

The other one was July 1 against the Chicago Red Stars when Lianne Sanderson and Lynn Williams scored in a 2-0 victory. “I felt at that time Chicago was the most influential, deep, talented roster in the league. Chicago is a very, very good side.

“That was the moment when I felt maybe we’ve got a shot.”

{USWNT: Will face Romania in November | Bush on Ellis’s fresh call-ups}

The only minor hiccup on that night was when the team returned to Buffalo and Mewis accidentally uttered the word that shall not be used around the Flash. “I remember Sam Mewis got off the bus and said, ‘Do you actually think we’ve got a shot at the playoffs?’ I said (gasping). She was like ‘I didn’t mean to say the word.’ I said let’s just keep working and we’ll be okay.”

Keep working they did. Through an injury to goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo—she played through one match with a broken wrist—and a trade for Katelyn Rowland to take her place, the departures of internationals Lady Andrade, Halimatu Ayinde, and Jeon Ga Eul, and the arrivals of Sanderson and McCall Zerboni, the Flash just kept getting results.

“Getting McCall midseason and Lianne midseason helped the locker room too,” Riley said. “It gave us a bit more experience especially with the Olympic players about to go away. It’s been an up and down season for quite a few of them. Jae Hinkle didn’t make the World Cup squad. From a mental capacity we had to get Jae back on the card again. Sam went away and she didn’t play and Sam came back and she was feeling a little bit sorry. We had to get her back in the locker room. Alanna (Kennedy) missed a penalty in the World Cup.”

Even a late-season stretch of seven matches without a win did not sink them, mostly because the Flash managed to draw five of the seven. In one match they were down 3-1 in Houston and rallied with two late goals. The equalizer? A Jess McDonald pass in stoppage time that Williams finished in the North End goal at BBVA Compass Stadium. Sound familiar?

“This was a place we got last minute last time,” Riley recalled after Sunday’s win. “We were 3-1 down here, we came back. Abby hit a 60-yard ball down the field, Jess headed it down, Lynn put it in the back of the net. Same goal, same place almost exactly where she put this one.

“No matter what’s happened the group’s stuck together like glue. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed practice ever in my career, men or women, this year has just been one of those things every day you want to go to practice. Whether it’s short, long, hard, different, whatever it is, it’s been a lot of fun for sure.”

Teammates rush to mob Sabrina D'Angelo after her third PK save gave the Flash the 2016 NWSL Championship (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

Teammates rush to mob Sabrina D’Angelo after her third PK save gave the Flash the 2016 NWSL Championship (photo copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

even ifs, not what ifs

By the time Sunday’s final rolled around, the Flash were spent. It was their sixth consecutive away match and the previous eight days had seen them play a grueling, 120 minutes in Portland, fly across the country, and then fly to Houston to prepare for the NWSL Championship. It all took its toll in the form of a performance that every Flash player we spoke to acknowledged was substandard.

“The previous week and the previous game really took a lot out of us,” captain Abby Erceg admitted. “It was a tough game against Portland. They really took it to us. Obviously 120 minutes of football is not normal and traveling across the country as well. I think it all added up. We were tired going into the game, more so than we thought we would be.”

The Spirit lined up in a 3-5-2 similar to what FC Kansas City had done in the first match and though it may have sacrificed some of their own attack, the formation kept the Flash off balance. “They caught us by surprise a little bit,” Riley said. “We didn’t expect it. It was a bold move by Jimmy (Gabarra.)”

The Flash made some halftime adjustments to settle the match down, but according to Riley, “We matched up better in the second half but we still just didn’t play that great. Our energy level was a little bit lower than normal. That affects our press. When our press gets affected, everything else gets affected.”

{RELATED: Three reasons the Washington Spirit’s season ended in heartache}

But the thing that defined the 2016 Flash was that they didn’t worry about what happened when things didn’t go well. They focused on how they could succeed even if things didn’t go well.

“We’re not a club of what if–what if we don’t score, what if we don’t press well today. We’re more of a club of even ifs—even if the press doesn’t work today we’ll do this. Even if we don’t score today, Jess can do that for us. Even if we don’t play well today we can do this.”

That mentality was on full display as Williams leveled the match in the 4th minute of extra time. A few minutes later it was on display again when they prevailed in penalties even after McDonald missed the frame to give back the early advantage; and even after Mewis was saved on the would-be clincher.

This one is the best,” Zerboni said when asked to discuss her three championships with the Flash, “because literally everyone on this team is such a good person. We all love each other so much we’re really like friends. I’ve never been on a team where every single person from number 20 to number 1 like we really love each other so much and we would do anything for each other. I think that’s what carried through tonight.”

“I think we’ve built our season,” Riley said, “on even ifs and not what ifs.”

  • are you kidding?

    “Ownership has been great with backing us up. It’s cost them a little
    bit more money in doing that, making sure the players are taken care of.
    That little extra mile makes a huge impact.”

    LOL. Flash is the WORST club in the NWSL. Don’t forget the match in the baseball stadium against Seattle Reign. I don’t see they were taking care of players and league at all…

    • Steglitz49

      Whose fault was that? Were they fined?

    • SEM

      The NWSL messed up big time with the call to play on a baseball field. And that’s great to hear that the club owners were willing to spend more money. Most, if not all, owners of teams who aren’t partnered with MLS care about is making money, not spending it. The Flash has never had a good reputation, former players have no problems telling it like it is, perhaps the owners are trying to change that, make bad publicity turn into good publicity. What they did was great, now they are champions, while clubs like Seattle Reign and Kansas City, had one of their worst seasons. Perhaps those clubs can take a page out of WNY’s book.

      • another guest

        re “Most, if not all, owners of teams who aren’t partnered with MLS care about is making money, not spending it.”

        much more likely that owners of teams who are not partnered with MLS have been losing money.

        The total season attendance for non-MLS affiliated NWSL teams ranged from 21621 (Sky Blue) to 46018 (Seattle) with avg of 34.5K (mean or 33.66K median). The ticket revenue may cover the $278K team salary cap but not much else for these non-MLS affiliated teams.

    • Lindsey

      Are they really the worst though? I’ve never heard anything about the Flash ownership saying they wanted to ride their female players like horses.
      The Fiasco at Frontier wasn’t really all on WNY though. They got caught in the middle. The City of Rochester was a bad landlord by double-booking the stadium for one night and then the league was the one that insisted on the size of the field being smaller than originally anticipated. The league still gave the go-ahead and admitted that it was their fault.

      • JL

        It was a smaller field because the owners of Frontier would not allow grass to be laid over the infield, which is what they used to do when the Rhinos played there.

        • Lindsey

          The league said that THEY were the ones who made that decision.

          • JL

            Not exactly.

            This is what I gathered from reading some stuff written in the aftermath of this fiasco: The original plan was for the Flash to have sod laid down over the infield to match the dimensions described in the communications with the Reign and the league offices.

            Less than a week before the game was to take place, the owners of Frontier Field (or at least the owner of the Red Wings) said no. So Plan B was to still use the original field dimensions, but part of it would include the dirt from the infield and the warning track. The league said no to that, that it had to be as uniformly surfaced as possible.

            So with no time to move the game to a different venue, and still wanting it to be played, the team had little choice but to use just the outfield. It wasn’t ideal, and there were mistakes from everyone involved in that disaster. While the Flash screwed up by not checking well in advance to make sure grass could be laid down, the city also screwed them over by not announcing that the venue had been booked for that day until 3 months after the NWSL schedule had been released. Because they knew about it before the schedule was made.

          • Lindsey

            That does actually make more sense now. The Red Wings had a home game the day before the WNY-Seattle game and obviously you can’t play baseball with sod covering the infield. It most likely would have taken longer than 12 hours to lay the sod down and for it to settle enough to be used.

  • AlexH

    No Abby distractions. Also given that the WNT had a bad OG the prospect of spots opening up no doubt motivated a lot of the players.

  • Weltmeister

    The Nwsl Titel is no interest for the american Sports World.
    8000 Spectators at the Final is Bad vers Bad for the Nwsl and the Sponsors.
    And the Interest at the TV viewers is Bad.
    The Nwsl Is Doomed.

    • JL

      Go cry some more over Germany not winning the WC.

      • Craigaroo

        Yeah, really, right? I’m sure the Frauen-Bundesliga doesn’t get 8000 fans except for perhaps one or two games. The NWSL is doing fine for a 4-year old league. The TV viewership of 180,000 is not bad. Let’s see those Frauen-Bundesliga attendance figures.

        • Steglitz49

          When you have such rich sugar-daddies like Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen, attendance figures are an optional extra.

          That does not mean that german WoSo clubs have not gotten bankrupt or voluntarily stepped down a division to avoid relegation by two divisions because of poor finances, but let’s not worry about details.

          • Craigaroo

            What is the average attendance for teams like Bayern, Wolfsburg, Frankfurt?

          • Steglitz49

            Averages
            2014/15 — Potsdam 2135, FF 1998, Shewolves 1660, BM 1227, BL 503
            2015/16 — FF 1945, Potsdam 1854, Shewolves 1672, BM 1375, BL 649
            2016/17 so far — Potsdam 1930, Shewolves 1614, FF 1510, BM 1251, BL 593

      • Steglitz49

        Glasshouses spring to mind.

        The German ladies won OG-16 though, admittedly from off a Swedish own goal but let’s not get hung up on details.

        It was the first Olympic final ever without the US and the first all-European major intercontinental final since WC-03.

  • HOFCToDi

    Speaking of the Washington Spirit:

    w-league.com.au/article/western-sydney-wanderers-add-experience-to-w-league-roster/13sc5fg3u1mdv1qmrsf7qq56o7

    • mockmook

      Arlitt and Nielson may be the best of the quartet — should be a big boost for them going into 2017

    • guest

      A number of other player signings for Australian W-League teams have been announced recently.
      from articles on the women’s game site and w-league.com.au site

      “Perth Glory have announced the re-signing of American Vanessa DiBernardo for the full 2016/17 W-League season. … Her signing is strengthens the midfield that includes RedStars teammate Alyssia Mautz and Sky Blue FC’s Nikki Stanton. … and Mexican international Arianna Romero for Season 9 of the W-League.” Sam Kerr is also returning to play for Perth

      “Canberra United have announced the signing of championship winning duo Hayley Raso and Stephanie Ochs.” and Canberra has announced other new or returning players including Japanese international Yukari Kinga
      “Ellie BRUSH, Trudy BURKE, Emma CHECKER, Nickoletta FLANNERY, Michelle HEYMAN, Grace MAHER, Jenna MCCORMICK, Yukari KINGA (INAC Kobe Leonessa), Ashleigh SYKES,”

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    • um?

      I’m sure Stengel will be thrilled to read she was one of the last cuts before Rio.

      • Steglitz49

        Avoided the ignominy of the Bomb in Brasilia which became the worst ever result for the USWNT in a major tournament.

  • Michael V

    I live in Rochester and have had Flash season tickets most year. In addition, I my daughter has trained under Aaron and Alex for several years.

    I can not say more about how well the Flash organization treats people. Buffalo and Rochester are not easy places to live like Orlando, So. Cal., or Seattle/Portland; but the Sahlen’s have done a great job of building a facility like no other in this part of the country and all, ostensibly, to promote women’s sports (yes – it helps boys and men too).

    On any given day at Sahlen’s, there is soccer training and games, indoor softball, a men’s touch football league, and weight training for a local high school football team all at the same time for a reasonable price. And on those soccer training fields, the Flash players show up. When my daughter first started 6 seasons ago the likes of Christine Sinclair, Caroline Sager (Sweden), Ali Reilly (NZ), or Alex Morgan (not so much Marta – very reserved) might take the pitch with them.

    And even now, my daughter, as a college player, had an indoor game watched by Lynn Williams and Kristen Hamilton. They watched intently and cheered (both teams) like we cheer for them. It was fabulous. My son as a college football player in an NFL city, never had that happen.

    And oh yeah, in January when it’s -20F wind chill, it’s the only game. Families from as far as Cleveland and Pittsburgh drive up to have their daughter’s play on a full size indoor field in winter league games!

    Conversely, the Flash are a professional sports teams with inherent troubles – former massive locker room personalities, small market, bad weather, “who wants to live there?”, practice in one place – play in another. It seems to work – though not often pretty, but incredibly entertaining and much more personal than other professional sports to us fans.

    The Flash, the Lines/Sahlen family, and the Sahlens’ facilities are very important to this part of the country, and my family is grateful for that!

    BTW – I’m surprised that save a quick blurb in one of the Equalizer articles since Sunday, that few have picked up on the Flash very direct and physical style versus the current USWNT possession style. Though I prefer to watch the “look” of possession, would a switch back to direct and physical actually help the USWNT and play the US strengths?

    • Steglitz49

      Thank you for your report. Great story.